The lowest ebb of Pak-US bilateral relations is now discernable, marked by counterclaims and recriminations. On November 19, as before on 1 January this year, US President Donald Trump tweeted to reprove Pakistan publicly.
In the tweet, Trump lamented the escape of Osama bin Laden from the missile strike launched on the orders of former US President Bill Clinton before 2001, and said that the success of the strike could have forestalled the gory incident of 9/11. Trump attributed the failure of the US before 9/11 to capture bin Laden to Pakistan that kept on receiving billions of dollars in aid but did nothing substantial on the ground. In a subsequent tweet on the same day, Trump said that Pakistan failed to inform the US on bin Laden’s hiding in a compound in Abbottabad in 2011. The implied message is that Pakistan was aware of the fact but observed silence. Trump says that Pakistan temporized on the bin Laden issue to procure more money from the US; otherwise, the US could have captured or killed bin Laden much earlier. In the same tweet, Trump reiterated his earlier stance of condemning Pakistan for its inaction against the Afghan Taliban hiding on its land and consequently informing Pakistan of tapering off the US military aid amounting to more than one billion dollars annually.
Trump’s tweets indicate the way the administration in Washington regards the role of Pakistan. First, the tweets incriminate Pakistan in the issue of the wave of terrorism launched by bin Laden during his stay in Afghanistan. Second, the tweets implicate Pakistan in the crimes perpetrated by bin Laden by offering him either a tip off before 9/11 or a hiding place after 9/11. Third, the tweet accuses Pakistan of duplicity: joining the US camp to fight the war on terror and offering a hideout to the fugitive militants, the al-Qaeda or the Afghan Taliban on its land. In short, Trump is saying that the mess the US is in was partly, if not fully, engendered by Pakistan.
Pakistan has launched a rebuttal but the refutation is limited in scope. Pakistan does not give reasons for not helping the US before 9/11 to capture bin Laden in Afghanistan despite the fact that Pakistan helped the Taliban take over Kabul in 1996. Similarly, Pakistan is silent on the (implied) allegation that an insider alerted bin Laden to escape (narrowly) the missiles that passed over its airspace striking at the place bin Laden was holding a gathering in Afghanistan.
Pakistan has replied to the second part of the tweets by saying that it provided the US with initial footprints of the presence of bin Laden on its soil. The claim, calculated to work in favour of Pakistan, boomerangs on Pakistan for the inferred admission that it could not exactly locate bin Laden on its land, despite knowing of his presence inside the country at some safe place.
Through the tweets, Trump made it public that the military aid to Pakistan was being denied owing to its noncooperation. The timing of the announcement was such as to affect adversely Pakistan’s negotiations with the IMF to seek loans to run the economy. The insidious effect was apparent when the IMF refused to budge on its harsh conditions thereby creating a hiatus in the negotiations.
To Trump’s tweeted messages, the stance of Pakistan is that it has suffered enough fighting the war on terror and that it would fight the war in its own way keeping in view the interests of its people and the country. Pakistan claims that it has a right to change the course because, first, no Pakistani was involved in the 9/11 attacks, and second, Pakistan has suffered 75,000 casualties and has suffered the loss of over $123 billion compared to the minuscule $ 20 billion the US gave to Pakistan in aid. Pakistan also claims that it has offered the US free land access to Afghanistan and is promoting negotiations between the US and the Taliban.
Pakistan thinks that its participation in the war on terror will no longer be predicated on the conditions set by the US but by Pakistani interests. That is, Pakistan wants to fight the war on terror but on its own conditions. This is where the difference of opinion will further adversely affect bilateral relations. The US thinks that Pakistan’s fighting the war in its own way is not serving the US purpose to stay in Afghanistan or justifies filling Pakistan’s civil and military coffers.
Pakistan seems to have been shunning the label of a rentier country by changing the terms of engagement set by the then President General Pervez Musharraf. This is where another dilemma lies: a military dictator plunged the country into the war without setting the limits. General Musharraf thought of his own political survival and opted for financial gains to run the government. He submitted to the US demands without delimiting the boundaries of engagement.
Presently, Pakistan believes that the US is the final loser because the US is critically engaged in Afghanistan and it is unable to finish the war without Pakistan’s help. Pakistan considers itself to have been playing on its strength. On the other hand, the US thinks that the economy of Pakistan would not survive without the financial assistance by the US as happened in the wake of 9/11. Here, the US plays on its strength.
In short, Pak-US relations have reached the point where the apparent competition rests on perceived strengths and not on weaknesses. Nevertheless, the real test of Pak-US relations and their respective strengths would be on the day when a US drone makes a strike on Pakistan’s land, as was the practice in the past, and Pakistan’s subsequent response.